Not With a Bang but a Whimper: Can We Avoid the Next Pandemic?
Photo by Government of Alberta (Flickr)
by Patrycja Domeradzka
Congo faced its second-largest Ebola outbreak in 2018, with a few US travellers being infected alongside 28,000 West Africans. In September, monkeypox was diagnosed in three patients – a disease never seen in the UK before. Measles hit a record number of cases in Europe within the first six months of the year, with 41,000 people affected. Will 2019 bring us even closer to a global pandemic? If so, are we ready to face the challenge?
In 1962, quite a while after the first flu vaccine was created, virologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet claimed that infectious diseases are a thing of the past, so irrelevant to the modern age that writings on the topic should be considered history. It seems incredulous to read such a statement now but one of the most dangerous epidemic threats, influenza, was discovered in the 1930s. In the 1940s, scientists created a working vaccination. In 1962, scientists could not have predicted the level of adaptability flu viruses present, the need to detect the subtlest mutations. Even the most familiar strains can claim hundreds of thousands of lives all over the world. This is the reason the disease often is mistaken for a simple cold could turn into a biological mass-murderer; it’s the reason for the amount of money and resources dedicated to prevention and preparation.
Almost everyone remembers the bird flu outbreak 10 years ago. Just as the Western population thought it could breathe a sigh of relief, new strains of the flu virus evolved in pigs. This strain, called, H1N1, is considered one of the most dangerous forms of the virus - in 1918, 5% of the global population was lost due to its outbreaks. The killer Sir Burnet claimed to be gone forever was back – and we weren’t ready, not nearly as much as he thought we would be.
Most flu vaccines are still made with the use of chicken eggs, which requires a very hands-on development process. Due to high adaptability of the virus, the manufacturers must constantly make required adjustments. It is not the automated, clear-cut process we would like to believe it to be; it is not a process that could save us from a pandemic. If one step in a long supply chain of a lifesaving drug fails, there’s nothing that can make up for it. Four months into the pandemic, the vaccines barely started to hit the market, almost at the peak of the tragedy. Bill Gates dedicated a large part of his foundation into pandemic risks research. The simulations developed show that a severe flu pandemic could claim 33 million lives in only 250 days.
Pharmaceutical company Seqirus and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority have combined resources to address this problem. The researchers try to develop flu viruses in dog cells in order to increase efficiency. The thing about the vaccines, though, is that to be taken, they need to be taken seriously first.
Recent years have shown that anti-vaccine movements tend to correlate with epidemic outcomes. France reported 2,600 measles cases which is expected of a society where 40% report they don’t believe vaccinations are safe. A shocking number of 12,000 cases of measles were recorded in Ukraine, which seems to correlate with 25% of the population reporting their mistrust in vaccines, as well as ongoing political unrest; lack of trust in vaccination safety is hypothesised to be linked with mistrust in the government. While science is trying to prepare us for the next worst-case scenario, political landscapes seem to be its worst obstacle.